It turns out that LeBron James doesn’t need Kyrie Irving, either. Put him on the shelf next to Kevin Love. Toss out a starting center, raise the goals to 11 feet and give him just one shoe. He’s got this.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Working through a rough shooting night, James dominated as a first-half facilitator and second-half scorer as the Cleveland Cavaliers destroyed the Chicago Bulls with a 94-73 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The hobbled Irving went down with a sprained left knee with under 10 minutes to go in the first half and the game tied, but James’ brilliance and the audacity of his helpers gave Cleveland all it needed to turn the game into a blowout that Irving needn’t return to.
Cleveland outscored Chicago 59-38 after the gutty Irving was forced to leave the court following an awkward landing on teammate Tristan Thompson’s foot. James mostly ran the ostensible point guard position for the bulk of his post-Irving turn in the first half, helping create a 14-point lead, hitting swingmen J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for repeated threes as Chicago continued to employ defensive sets that the rest of the NBA caught up to in 2011.
In the second half, reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova was the spark that led Cleveland out of a third-quarter malaise, hitting a series of tough runners and spot-up threes as Chicago’s eyes focused elsewhere. The Bulls continued a pathetic display offensively, once again failing to counter Cleveland coach David Blatt’s in-game adjustments and lineups.
Dellavedova would finish with 19 points on only 11 shots, and though James had his issues shooting early, he still worked up a needed 15-point, 11-rebound, and nine-assist night. Stats like those often doom James’ team when he focuses more on playmaking than individual scoring, but his brand of crowd work kept the Bulls off their defensive game and the floor tilted to his side all evening.
Sometimes, too much ice tends to water down the drink. Cleveland nailed 8 of 14 first-half 3-pointers and a stellar 12 of 27 overall, as Smith and James Jones contributed 21 bench points while Chicago flailed away. Cleveland’s offense worked up expert spacing all night, going small as quickly as it could while the Bulls whiffed on countering with its age-inappropriate sets.
The same could be said for Chicago’s offense. The Bulls’ front office is not without its needless faults, but too often the Chicago coaching staff leaned on what made them the plucky underachievers in years past instead of taking a chance and playing for something bigger. The Bulls continually looked to let Joakim Noah initiate the offense, something that made sense prior to the center’s debilitating “minor” knee surgery from one year ago. Not only did the team walk into sets, overpass (usually finding Noah along the way) and pass on utilizing Pau Gasol’s superior touch, but it also looked off Derrick Rose continually in transition. When Mike Dunleavy or Noah choose to walk the ball up court after a miss instead of Rose, you have a problem.
A 42-points-in-the-final-three-quarters-of-the-game-of-your-life-in-front-of-your-home-fans-problem, it turns out.
Rose ended his first postseason as an active player in four years with just 14 points on 16 shots, becoming more and more an afterthought as the contest moved along. Gasol (playing through a sprained hamstring) was brilliant early in the game, helping to lead the Bulls to 31 first-quarter points, but the Bulls went away from him as the contest moved along. Jimmy Butler did well to lead the Bulls with 20 points in the loss, but his looks were labored – he was asked to bail out Chicago too often late in the possessions that started far too late. It’s also fair to say that Cleveland has sussed out the backdoor play set to free Dunleavy for layups. Kirk Hinrich, another Chicago Bulls coaching staff crutch, played 20 ineffective minutes in what might be his final NBA game.
Hinrich’s 2003 draft-mate, LeBron James, is just getting started. He supplies these Cavaliers with confidence in ways that are almost tangible. The “LeBron’s-passing-to-me?” strut that players like Shumpert and Smith and even the stoic Timofey Mozgov give is obvious, and though coach David Blatt struggled with an obvious offense earlier in the series it is clear that things have opened up and that going May means going small if your team wants to win behind LeBron James.
The whole of the NBA expected this series to happen all the way back in July. Chicago added a win-now veteran in Gasol and the return of a healthy spark in Rose in the hopes that the latest incarnation of LeBron’s Choice of Toys would have to make its way through Chicago on the way to the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the script played out. A strident and determined Bulls squad took Game 1. Fat and sassy with stealing the home court advantage, the same anxious attitude didn’t show up in Game 2 as Cleveland rolled. The Bulls were lucky to win Game 3 on a banked-in buzzer-beater and unlucky to lose Game 4 as the referees looked the other way in what could have been a coaching boner for the ages. Game 5 saw LeBron finally dig in on his needed Jordan-esque turn. Chicago relied on its maddening mixture of martyrdom and too-trusted old habits as Game 6 got away from them.
Everything went according to plan, which is why this series disappointed in the end. Cleveland’s effort and eventual confidence is not to be dismissed, but these two squads could have given us much better basketball. The idea that Irving might not be right again until July hits only adds to the bummer. Cleveland should have its way with either Atlanta or Washington in the Conference finals but, dammit, this team wasn’t built to beat Atlanta and Washington.
It was built to beat bigger things, and if Chicago had its gearing correct, it could have been one of those bigger things. Luckily for Cleveland, LeBron James’ teammates seem to have figured out this whole “we’re-in-the-playoffs” thing. That’s big.
They just need to get to June, healthy. In a sad way, it appears as if a little bit of Chicago has rubbed off on Cleveland after all.
- - - - - - -